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Novel technology for inspecting nuclear reactors

The huge steel tanks containing the nuclear material and coolant at a nuclear power plant are subject to cracking. EU-funded researchers developed advanced robotic technology to increase the reliability of safety inspections.
Novel technology for inspecting nuclear reactors
Nuclear energy has many benefits compared to energy derived from fossil fuels and accidents are rare. However, when they do happen, accidents can be quite dangerous due to the radioactive hazards associated with nuclear material.

Reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) are an integral part of a nuclear power plant. They are thick-walled cylindrical vessels consisting of steel plates welded together. RPVs house the reactor core and the coolant.

The core contains the radioactive fuel and is where the nuclear reaction takes place, generating a tremendous amount of heat. The coolant is used to remove the heat and transfer it to electrical generators and the environment.

RPVs become brittle with age and susceptible to cracking. Non-destructive testing (NDT) is used to identify defects before they lead to potentially catastrophic accidents but conventional methods have numerous limitations.

Robots are heavy, expensive and difficult to manipulate resulting in a time-consuming process that disrupts other plant activities. Sensors are placed in ‘probe pans’ to inspect large areas but, again, the need for frequent replacement of these increases inspection time. In addition, mistakes in detection often lead to manual intervention, increasing time and cost and subjecting workers to exposure to potentially hazardous materials.

European researchers initiated the Rimini project to develop NDT technology reducing time of inspection and thus cost, and enhancing safety and reliability of the inspection process and outcomes.

The Rimini team developed and adapted numerous NDT techniques and technologies including phased-array modelling software, 128-channel phased-array instrumentation, an alternating current-field measurement (ACFM) system, and a wall-climbing robot and deployable robotic arm.

Taken together, Rimini technology should speed up inspection times, reduce worker exposure to hazardous radiation and enhance defect detection with NDT techniques designed for inspecting RPVs.

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